Hester on Hockenberry and Starosielski and Zieger, 'Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media'

Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, Susan Zieger, eds.
Jennessa Hester

Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, Susan Zieger, eds. Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 264 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1076-0; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0973-3.

Reviewed by Jennessa Hester (Texas Tech University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (November, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58189

The overarching concern of Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media, an edited volume from Duke University Press, is to reframe readers’ understanding of the role logistics plays in the manufacture and maintenance of marginalization. Focusing on the concept of “logistical media,” the essays describe “how contemporary mediation is haunted by its logistical substructures,” from the shipping and documenting processes that undergirded the transatlantic slave trade, to newly developing forms of supply chain capitalism that uphold corporate monoliths like Amazon and Netflix (p. 4). However, what truly distinguishes this work is its emphasis on activistic thinking, a heartbeat of hope and possibility that runs through the entire volume. The essays seek not merely to describe the fractures caused by logistical media but also to envision ways of overcoming them: through theorization, through fabulation, through solidarity with the oppressed. Over the course of three sections—“The Logistical Imagination,” “Logistical Instruments,” and “Supply Chain Media”—Assembly Codes offers a useful and provocative investigation of the systems that drive the “drama of globalization” and an inspiring intimation that things might, through personal and intercommunal effort, become better in the future (p. 2).

The volume’s first section, “The Logistical Imagination: Image, Sound, Subject,” includes Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s “Habits of Assembly,” Susan Zieger’s “‘Shipped’: Paper, Print, and the Atlantic Slave Trade,” Ebony Coletu’s “Pan-African Logistics,” and Shannon Mattern’s “The Pulse of Global Passage: Listening to Logistics.” Harney and Moten open the collection on a philosophical note, arguing that the concept of “ownership,” the driver of logistical demand, does not originate by way of economic or political subjection. Instead, it finds its origin in the formation of subjective and privatized interiorities, a “theft of fleshly, earth(l)y life, which is then incarcerated in the body” and “bears the individual-in-subjection” (p. 24). Differentiated from subsequent contributions by way of abstracted lyrical inquiry, Harney and Moten’s essay is a remarkable opening to the volume, forcing readers to consider logistics not as distant mechanisms of mediation but as intimate extensions of corporeal existence. Zieger retains this focus on oppressed bodies by examining two types of documents essential to the transatlantic slave trade: bills of lading and ship diagrams. While fully acknowledging these materials’ complicity in the sin of chattel slavery, Zieger argues quite compellingly that examining them with a different logistical imagination might open new possibilities for recovering “Black difference, suffering, and resistance” from the cruel archive of enslavement (p. 44). Coletu proceeds into similar territory, focusing on the Black American diaspora and the logistical complications that mediated historical attempts to return to Africa. As with Zieger before, Coletu offers a remarkable argument in favor of using logistics as a mode of reparativity, of repurposing “the mechanisms responsible for separation, mobility, and reunion ... toward liberatory ends” (p. 58). Mattern concludes the section by shifting modalities and attuning readers to the audible din of logistics. Doing so, she posits, opens up speculative possibilities for comprehending pain and resistance on the slave ship and captivity on the plantation field, instances of “both self-preservation and self-destruction” conveyed through aural means (p. 82). Combined, these opening essays are a particular high point in an already excellent volume, and the conversation between them elevates Assembly Codes into required reading even for those outside of media studies.

The volume’s second section, “Logistical Instruments: Efficiency, Automation, Interoperability,” contains Liam Cole Young’s “Colonization's Logistical Media: The Ship and the Document,” Matthew Hockenberry’s “‘Every Man within Earshot’: Auditory Efficiency in the Time of the Telephone,” and Ned Rossiter’s “Logistical Media Theory, the Politics of Time, and the Geopolitics of Automation.” Young focuses on two technologies that materially aided and affectively encouraged the mission of imperialism: the ship, which spurred exploration and turned “the sea into a zone of extraction”; and the document, which posed as a form of generative inscription but functioned as a means of establishing “settler power not through creation but through cancellation of what came before” (p. 104). Hockenberry jumps to the twentieth century, crafting a compelling historiography that ties Western Electric’s advertisement of a “twentieth century servant” in the form of the telephone, to modern voice-activated assistants like Siri and Alexa (p. 119). Rossiter rounds out this trio by looking closely at the politics of power, exploring how automated logistical technologies exact control over the management of societies. Narrower in scope than the opening section, these essays function as a useful shift from imaginative reconceptualizations of logistics to practical material investigations of logistical technologies as arbiters of history, economics, and culture.

The volume’s final section, “Supply Chain Media: Digitization, Globalization, Exploitation,” consists of Michael Palm’s “Carry That Weight: The Costs of Delivery and the Ecology of Vinyl Records' Revival,” Kay Dickinson’s “Supply Chain Cinema, Supply Chain Education: Training Creative Wizardry for Offshored Exploration,” Nicole Starosielski’s “The Politics of Cable Supply from the British Empire to Huawei Marine,” and Tung-Hui Hu’s “Laugh Out Loud.” Each of these essays provides effective breakdowns of contemporary media supply chains, with all four authors devoting considerable space to the technologies, labors, and laborers behind their respective industries. However, these pieces excel because they go beyond mere description and analysis, offering routes by which academic and activist alike might enact meaningful change. In Palm’s piece, a compelling examination of the modern vinyl record industry yields useful insights on how to enact more ecologically minded production practices in the age of two-day shipping. Dickinson offers a similarly progressive intervention, tying exploitative practices of the British film industry to the “university’s habitual and habituating modes of assessment” and proposing new conceptions of worker-scholar solidarity as a potential solution (p. 180). Starosielski broadens out to international political battles, demonstrating how existing ideological regimes—such as the West’s continuing conflicts with China, shown here in the global economic shutout of Chinese company Huawei Marine—draw attention from pressing issues of logistical monopolization by companies like Facebook, concerns that might be resolved through greater public scrutiny. Finally, Hu closes out the volume by narrowing in once more on individuals, using the concept of “inauthentic laughter” to explore how bodies are stripped of “agency and thus personhood” within logistical supply chains yet arguing that this lethargic position nonetheless “holds its own potential” and “creates space for other forms of affective experience” for marginalized persons (p. 210). Remarkable both for its individual quality and placement within the collection, Hu provides a stirring endcap to this essential book, reminding readers that this journey they have taken through logistical media begins and ends with their own embodied subjection. All of us are intimately bound to the histories, processes, and oppressions described in Assembly Codes, and it is to the editors’ and authors’ extreme credit that they managed to explore the intricacies of such a fact while maintaining and promoting hope for a better tomorrow.

Citation: Jennessa Hester. Review of Hockenberry, Matthew; Starosielski, Nicole; Zieger, Susan, eds., Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58189

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.